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Review: Hans Graf conducts the L.A. Philharmonic at Disney Hall

May 1, 2009 | 12:01 pm

Hans Graf, the Austrian-born music director of the Houston Symphony, isn’t a glamorous conductor per se; the sweeping gestures and nimble-footed choreography of some of his colleagues are not his style. 

But he is a solidly reassuring one — and that was enough to get the Los Angeles Philharmonic through another of those difficult mornings — which inevitably follow such emotioGrafnal watersheds as Esa-Pekka Salonen's farewell concerts just a few weeks ago.

Indeed, the Philharmonic had another trauma to deal with Thursday night, the sudden death of its 48-year-old principal trombonist Steven Witser from an apparent heart attack Monday night. In his memory, Graf led off the concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall with a lucid performance of “The Enchanted Garden” from Ravel’s “Ma Mere L’Oye,” which under these conditions sounded surprisingly elegiac. Even the burst of sunlit color at the close seemed tinged with sadness. 

Graf is capable of a certain degree of adventure; his discography includes the complete orchestral music of Dutilleux, and a recording of Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony with the Houston Symphony comes out this month on Naxos. In that spirit, he brought Kodály’s Concerto for Orchestra to the Philharmonic for the first time, and it was a worthwhile encounter. 

The piece has always suffered in the shadow of Bartók’s far-better-known Concerto for Orchestra — which Kodály’s piece predates by three years — and Kodály’s own lumbering recording from the early 1960s probably did more harm than good. But with precise, vigorously-paced conducting, Graf was able to demonstrate that Kodály’s compact single movement has a life-affirming vitality similar to that of the Bartók work, despite the composer's quite different, less-tart musical language and temperament.

That said, I doubt if anyone can figure out a way to make Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 sound like great music — and there’s no point in even trying. So Graf and his hard-working Russian-born pianist Kirill Gerstein did the pragmatic things that one can do with this piece of work — pound out those octaves double fortissimo, make those rhapsodic cascades melt in your hands, and just get into its boisterous, noisy, showoff spirit without apologies. 

However, Dvorák’s Symphony No. 8 gave Graf room to share plenty of insights — his zeroing in on the crucial climax of the first movement and letting its big sound roll all through the hall, his wide dynamic contrasts in the pastoral second movement, his subtle yet infectiously swaying rhythmic control of the third movement. Though Graf’s physical gestures were restrained and economical, the points were conveyed — and the performance came off wonderfully.

--Richard S. Ginell

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A. 8 p.m. today;  2 p.m. Sunday. $22.25 to $157. (323) 850-2000 or

Photo: CM Artists.